Contemplating the gargoyles on the Cathedral of Lujan as they were being explained to her, five year old Sophie listened, then very politely said: “Please don’t talk. I’m thinking now.” Understanding why these sentinels were needed to terrorize people into obedience rightly demanded contemplation.
Reading first person accounts of Bersih 3 and the disgraceful behavior of those who should be guardians of civic society, I want to say as little Sophie did: “Please don’t talk. I am thinking now.” Because from this great distance, I am not anywhere close to understanding the gargoyles that appear to have tormented Malaysians as they expressed once again, through yet another massive peaceful rally, their desire for clean elections.
I cannot quite understand the ghastly faces of authority that are emerging as I read in the many reports of Bersih 3 the story of the slow descent of my country into the ranks of states that have let their early promise curdle. I cannot quite understand the damning silence of those who were elected to serve the people, who tout One Malaysia while standing by mute as Malaysians, acting peacefully as one, are bullied and beaten by those charged with protecting them.
There is only so much one can do to fathom what it is that makes us strangers to our neighbors. There is only so much one can do to understand how those with power vested in them by the people they profess to lead, let some part of their humanity be twisted and turned into the grotesque.
Like the gargoyles on grand facades, we can spot the grotesque at many points on the planet. From Syria to Norway. Wherever the citadels of the wealthy abut the shanties of the poor. From the ornate chambers of the Vatican where they come up with new ways to torment nuns to more than 20 US state legislatures that are advancing laws with rules mandating invasive ultrasounds for women seeking abortions.Wherever people are imprisoned without cause, not charged with a crime, yet torn from their communities, with no way to seek justice, there we encounter gargoyles.
Some gargoyles admittedly, are more terrifying than others. Some silence people forever. Others are cautionary reminders to us to be more engaged citizens, better witnesses to our faiths and fuller participants in the civic life of our communities.
Gargoyles are not created equal. Some are spectacularly scary. Others are more subdued but no less deliberate in the menace of their gaze. All are grotesque. What, if not grotesque, is the unleashing of violence by a government on its people? What, if not grotesque, is the killing of dozens of innocent children by a man warped by his hatred of Islam and Muslims?
What, if not grotesque is the Vatican’s inexplicable persecution of the sisters who keep giving generously of their lives and their labor to those most in need in rough, tough places, their heroism often unsung? What, if not grotesque is the spectacle of self-proclaimed conservative men, many Catholic, many in very high places, hell-bent on policing women? (Do they not have mothers, wives, daughters, sisters?)
Gargoyles grow more grotesque the longer they terrify with impunity. Lucky the nation, faith or community whose people can find the courage and the means to stand firm, contemplate the ugliness and say politely but firmly: “Please. No more talk. We have seen. We have thought. And this must stop.”
There is reason to hope. Gargoyles have been known to fall from their perches. And good people know they are no longer in fashion. The better angels of our natures can face down the most grotesque of gargoyles. They always have. Or so many would not be ready to do so again, even when the price is life itself.